In the real world, deadlines are law. Turning something in late means it doesn’t get published, and you don’t get paid. Timeliness may not always be rewarded, but the consequences for not being able to keep up with deadlines are severe – especially if whether or not you get picked for a writing job depends on recommendations from people you have written for previously.
Working on deadline, and getting ahead, are learned habits. There’s no better time to start learning than right now.
Here are a few things you can do to stay focused while writing and get more work done ahead of time.
Go Cold Turkey
When I took a week-long vacation at the end of 2016, I did nothing but spend virtually every hour of every afternoon on Netflix, YouTube or Steam – which was fine, when I was on vacation. But I found it extremely difficult to climb out of that hole when the new year started and I had to get back to work.
The internet is unforgiving in many ways. Sometimes you need it to write, but you see one BuzzFeed article pop up and you’re doomed for the next hour and a half.
Enter Cold Turkey – a Mac desktop app and web browser extension that lets you choose specific websites to block while leaving others fully accessible. You choose the duration. You have no choice but to avoid the websites you’ve completely blocked yourself out of and do something else – something productive. At least, that’s what happened to me.
Download. Install. Block. Boom. I can’t go on Facebook, I can’t stop “just to watch one video” on YouTube. I can’t hit my 3 p.m. slump and just decide to call it quits for the day, diving into yet another Netflix binge.
When there’s nothing left to do but work, that’s what you’ll do. I didn’t think that would be the case – but it turns out that if it weren’t for my biggest online distractions, I could have most likely gotten twice as much work done last year. But I didn’t – because I had no idea how distracted I actually was.
If the internet isn’t your biggest distraction from writing, then you probably need to choose a different writing location, and/or consider writing by hand, or using Cold Turkey Writer, which, as you can probably guess, allows you to do nothing but stare at a screen and write.
Work in intervals
Everyone works differently. Some people prefer to work by time, using methods to “power work” for a certain amount of time, taking a break and repeating the process. Others work by project, focusing only on work from one client until it’s done before moving on to the next thing.
However you work, do so in intervals so you don’t find yourself working for hours straight without giving your brain a rest period.
I try to work for two hours in the morning, take a break to work out, work for two more hours, take a lunch break, draft a blog post, then work for two more hours, take a shorter break, and so on. Working without breaks is both unproductive and dangerous. The longer you work without stopping, the more you concentration and the quality of the work you are doing deteriorates.
However, taking productive breaks are also important. Don’t just scroll through Twitter for 15 minutes and then go straight back to what you were doing before. Grab a snack, throw in a load of laundry, run an errand. The time you spend working will produce much better results. You’ll most likely work faster and feel more energized and focused, too.
Trick your brain
It’s not easy, or even always practical, to decide you’re going to stop procrastinating. Not all procrastination is bad, and it’s more of a personality trait than a habit, which makes “quitting” arbitrary. For many people, it’s just who they are. Which is fine, until it starts interfering with your ability to get your work done well and/or on time.
Whether you write as a hobby or you’re a working professional, deadlines are a great motivator for getting quality work done efficiently. The less time you have to spend on good writing, the more good writing you’ll be able to do. But since waiting until the last minute can’t always be avoided, you can work around that … by changing an expected due date on your own schedule.
Never write down a real deadline. Instead, always mark it down in your calendar or planner three days earlier than the real deadline. (This way, if something is due on a Monday, you finish on Friday; if it’s due Friday, you finish on Tuesday.) You can literally trick your brain into believing that’s the real deadline, so that even if you do end up waiting until the last minute, you’ll still end up turning your work in early.
This is really hard for me – once I see a date, it for whatever reason lodges itself into my brain and it’s not easily forgotten. But I’m also a planner junkie, so if I see something is due on the 25th, I’m much more likely to finish it by the 25th. No excuses – you can train your brain to do a lot of things you don’t think you can do. This works. I promise.
How do you manage deadlines? What are some other tactics you’ve tried for staying ahead of schedule?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.